Are you concerned about your weight or that of your children or spouse? Does your family struggle to make healthy food choices? Do meal times and snack times feel like a battleground? If so, you are not alone.
Obesity is a major health problem for both children and adults in this country. Approximately 10 percent of 4- and 5-year-old children are overweight, and this percentage increases as children age. For kids and adults alike, being overweight is most often the result of unhealthy eating patterns and lack of exercise or activity. So how can you buck that trend and encourage healthy habits for everyone in your family?
Focus on the Whole Family – and Habits, not Pounds
Whether your entire family or just one or two individuals struggles with weight issues, it’s important to focus on healthy habits, rather than a specific weight goal. The idea is for everyone in the household to develop healthy and positive attitudes toward food and physical activity.
- Avoid serving different meals and snacks for an overweight child than for yourself or for healthy-weight children. Instead, provide healthy meals and snacks for all and encourage daily physical activity.
- One way to help ensure that your family eats well is to consult the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate.gov nutrition standards for adults and for kids. You might also encourage your child to explore some of the games and activities provided on the site.
- Eat together as a family as often as possible and offer a variety of healthy foods in recommended portions, based on the USDA standards.
- Limit your child’s screen time (TV, video games, computer) and other inactive pursuits to one to two hours per day.
Focus on Structure, Not Control
If you think about it, the adults in the family control almost every aspect of the family’s diet. They decide what is served, when and in what order food is eaten, how much is served, and sometimes, they even dictate how much of a particular food must be consumed. Is it any wonder that meals often become a source of conflict between kids and grown-ups?
While parents should not yield total control of the family diet, there are ways to take the fight out of meal and snack times. Structure is important, and so are choices.
- Establish daily meal and snack times at regular intervals. This will help you keep an eye on what and how much your kids are eating, and it will help them feel satisfied, thereby avoiding hunger-induced binge eating.
- Offer a range of healthy choices and let your children decide whether and how much they want. To encourage them to try different foods, change up your menu frequently and ask them to “eat around the plate,” taking a bite of each individual item. Explain why this is important (e.g., different foods are good for their bodies in different ways).
- As you plan, shop for, and prepare meals, involve your family. Ask for their input and include them in menu planning, recipe selection, grocery shopping, and food preparation.
- All food, in moderation, can be part of a healthy diet. Allow the occasional treat or sweets so that your family doesn’t feel deprived, as this can lead to overeating.
- Serve nutritious snacks at specific times. Good choices include fruit, vegetables, grains, low-sugar cereal, low-fat dairy, lean meat, or meat alternatives. For example, apple slices and whole grain crackers could be a satisfying alternative to a sugary snack. Be aware, too, that fruit juice has fewer nutrients and more calories than whole fruit. For that reason, it should be limited to 4 to 8 ounces per day.
- Sign up for a free CDPHP® wellness class. Topics include nutrition, fitness, and more.
Planning Healthy Family Dinners
Sit-down dinners with your family can yield a number of benefits that extend beyond the food itself. Learning about the highs and lows of each other’s day, talking about what is coming up tomorrow or later in the week, or just having a chance to touch base at a specific time each day can help keep the lines of communication open. In addition, dinnertime offers a unique opportunity to teach and model good eating habits.
Here are a few strategies for ensuring healthy dinners and involving the whole family:
- Develop a schedule that allows each family member to plan the menu on a rotating basis.
- Discourage meals or snacks eaten in front of the television. When people eat in front of the TV, they sometimes don’t pay attention to the fact that they feel full, which leads to overeating.
- Make your whole dinner table look attractive and appetizing. You might consider a special dinner setting on Sunday nights, for example, where your table is festooned with a vase of colorful flowers and cloth napkins, or perhaps your child could make place cards or napkin rings for special occasions. Don’t be afraid to be creative!
- A pressure cooker or slow cooker can be a time-saving tool for families on the go. With a little advance preparation, it produces a one-pot, no-mess meal that cooks while you’re at work or school. And if you just can’t manage a sit-down family dinner because of everyone’s schedule, a prepared slow cooker meal offers family members a chance to serve themselves at any time.
- Try cooking a week’s worth of nutritious meals over the weekend and freeze them in portion-sized containers so that you don’t have to cook during your busy work week.
- Take a little time to think about your eating and cooking styles. Do you prefer to cook from scratch and have the time to do it? Or, is your schedule particularly hectic, in which case pre-cut veggies and pre-packaged cheeses or meats might help streamline your efforts to prepare healthy meals? Thinking about your style and having the correct ingredients on hand will help you maintain a healthy diet.
- Try to plan your meals for the entire week, and make sure you have basic, nutritious staples in the house so you can whip up a healthy meal quickly. This will help you avoid purchasing high-calorie fast food or take-out meals in a pinch because you don’t have the correct ingredients for a nutritious meal.
By watching your portion sizes and making fitness part of your everyday routine, you are helping yourself and your family to be healthier, and you’re setting up good habits for life.
References: NYS Department of Health, HealthyEating.org, American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / CC BY